Even if we wanted to, few of us could hide from the information overload that accompanied the COVID-19 virus and the worldwide pandemic which has consumed the past 18 months.
We were bombarded with hospitalization numbers, daily updates on state and national death counts, businesses that were closing and jobs that were lost.
It was, and still is, a challenging time.
One person, however, made the best of the situation and actually found a silver, I mean sandy, lining within it. A modern day river rat — and I mean that in the most positive way – by the name of Tim “Fez” Nederloe was able to spend nearly four months in paradise during the most challenging of times.
Paradise, in Nederloe’s eyes, was camping, fishing and living on a Mississippi River island near La Crosse. Yes, he packed up, loaded his flat-bottom boat with gear and set up camp from April through July on a back channel island of the Mississippi River between the Seventh Street landing and Goose Island.
It was an opportunity, unfortunately spurred by COVID, which left him with a lifetime of memories. Positive memories, which is the key.
“I know there were a lot of bad things with COVID, but it was, by far, the best summer of my life. I can’t stress how lucky I am,” said Nederloe, a 34-year-old man who was born and raised in La Crosse.
People are also reading…
“I kind of hit the lottery last year. I was still working at Alter Metal Recycling, then COVID hit. They laid off an office lady and laid off me.
“They told me, ‘I hope you understand we will be bringing you back.’ I was almost jumping for joy. It was just starting to get nice out.”
A temporary loss of his job, and main income, was disappointing, but it was April of 2020, and that meant the summer fishing and camping season was just about to begin. If you know Nederloe, those are two key things that make him tick.
On the river “since I was old enough to fit into a lifejacket,” Nederloe knew it was a chance to live his dream. He was told he didn’t have to worry about finding another job, he was receiving unemployment benefits, and he had time.
Lots of time. Time to camp, fish, relax and recharge.
Time to slow down, enjoy the sights and sounds of nature around him not just for a few days, but more than a 100 days and nights. Get back to what he enjoys the most in this world — the river.
With his level of passion for the Mississippi, you swear this guy’s got river water running through his veins.
“I pretty much went out set up a tent and stayed there for four months.
I have always been a river person. Well, hell, that it is what I like to do.
I had a tent where I slept in; I had another tent for wood pile and grill and chairs and random stuff.
“I still had my house, the house I rented. I would stay out there (sand bar on the island) in the afternoon and fish during the prime time. I could go back to my campsite, wake up and come off the river, depending on how bad the bugs were, come back home and get some food and re-up on the cooler and food. It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity when the government is going to basically sponsor you, I wasn’t going to waste it.”
Nederloe was camping, but he wasn’t totally roughing it on an island he named “Bangarang,” which was the battle cry of the Lost Boys in the 1992 Disney movie “Hook.” He had several modern conveniences, such as a cell phone, comfy mattress, tents that kept rain and most of the bugs out.
As a bonus, he had the sound of critters all around him and on the water.
“I was spoiled rotten out there. I had a queen-sized mattress. I had a deep cycle battery and power converter where I could charge my cellphone and blow up the air mattress,” Nederloe said. “I built a nice fire pit and tripod grill. I cooked brats a lot.”
There were a couple of things he could have done without, however. Beavers, for one. Human garbage, for another.
“The beavers were pretty relentless. They would be outside of my campsite slapping their tails on the water. They would hit my (fishing) pole and the bell would go off,” Nederloe said of a system he had rigged up to his fishing pole to alert him of a bite. “There were definitely some wild storms. Where I was camped, I was tucked under a group of four maple trees. They formed a canopy where I was at. It was a good storm protection. I just zipped up the tent and rode it out.”
What Nederloe couldn’t let ride is how he feels about people who fail to clean up their campsites, and simply leave a big mess of glass, cans, garbage and yes, even syringes.
“People with their trash and bringing glass on the water is unreal. I am always picking up glass bottles and trash. Chunks of metal and glass, it is crazy. That was the one thing that just irked my taters beyond anything else,” Nederloe said, noting it’s illegal to bring glass bottles or glass containers of any kind of a river island or sandbar.
“And the amount of needles we find is unreal. We find needles a lot, walking across the sand barefoot. Syringe needles. It is not hard to grab one garbage bag and clean up after yourself.”
So what did Nederloe do to pass the time? He had plenty of time to fish for big catfish, boat, and simply enjoy nature. His girlfriend, Lindsey Harper, who lived in Menomonie, Wis., at the time, would come down on weekends and the two would do some boating and camping.
He would also meet up with his family during the week, as his father, Duwayne, and brother, Andy, would be out fishing. And he would keep in touch with his friends via a Snapchat group, and members of that group would occasionally join him.
“I think they were really jealous,” Nederloe said of when asked what his family thought of his spring/summer camping adventure. “My girlfriend thought it was awesome. I just kept telling them this is the only time I am ever going to be able to do this.
“I feel like last year was just unbelievable. My brother works as hard as I do, and said, ‘What the hell, man, it must be nice.’ I am going to do it because I can.”
Nederloe did it because, for one, the pieces fell into place. He didn’t have to worry about working, and has since returned to his 50-hour-a-week job at Alter Metal Recycling; he had no other obligations other than to himself, and if he needed something at home, his house was five minutes from the Seventh Street boat landing.
“COVID, it sucks, but I just got lucky. I live right next to this humongous river, and it’s five minutes from my house,” Nederloe said. “It was the best summer of my life. I know a lot of people had it hard from COVID, but I was spoiled rotten. I was able to save money and was able to get LASIK (eye) surgery from saving money.”
And he was able to pursue what he loves to do when it comes to fishing: catch big fish. Nederloe, you see, fishes for sturgeon in the spring and fall, then flathead catfish in the summer. He caught a 56-inch sturgeon about eight years ago near Trempealeau, and a 20-pound flathead two years ago near Shore Acres on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi.
You can read more on Nederloe’s big-fish pursuits in the future, but this has to be shared.
“Personally, I think they (catfish) are one of the top three coolest fish in the river. My buddies and I will be sitting around the campfire, and once a bell goes off and someone catches a monster, it’s just awesome,” Nederloe said.
“You are out watching the sky … I just enjoy being out there (outdoors). We are truly blessed to be where we are.”
GOT ANY IDEAS?: If you know of someone who fishes, hunts, bikes, runs, water skis or hikes and might make an interesting story, send Jeff a note at email@example.com
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org